Tick Paralysis

Tick Paralysis: Everything you need to know

Tick poisoning can be deadly; seek urgent veterinary care

If you’re a pet owner living anywhere along the east coast of Australia, you need to know about paralysis ticks, tick poisoning and tick paralysis.

This guide has been written to give you an overview of what a paralysis tick is, how it can harm your pet and how your pet can be treated and protected.

It is especially important for people who live on or visit the North Shore or Northern Beaches. These areas have a substantial and active tick population, which is particularly worrying in warmer months from September to January.

If you suspect your pet has tick poisoning, please contact your vet immediately. If it’s after hours, do not wait until the morning. Call NEVS immediately. Your pet’s life depends upon timely treatment.

CALL NEVS: 02 9452 2933

A Guide To Ticks

What are ticks?

Ticks are parasites that feed on blood.

Despite the substantial number of tick cases we see every week in tick season (September to January), ticks are not very mobile. They travel on their host (the animal or person they have attached themselves to). Possums, echidnas, and bandicoots are often carriers of ticks and can pass them on to domestic animals or areas.

There are almost 900 species of ticks in the world. Approximately 70 of those species are found in Australia.

The tick that causes harm to pets in Australia is commonly known as the paralysis tick (scientific name – Ixodes holocyclus).

Have you found a tick on your dog or cat?

What do paralysis ticks look like?

Paralysis ticks are generally a grey colour. However, their colour can change as they feed, making colour an unreliable distinguishing characteristic. They can be very hard to detect. They can be as small as a pinhead or as large as a thumbnail. Their size will generally depend on how long it has been on your pet, how much blood it has ingested and the life stage of the tick. As ticks feed on blood, they become more and more engorged (or larger).

Spotted a tick on your pet?

Don’t delay.

The life cycle of a paralysis tick

Ticks do not have to be adults to cause damage to your pet. Each adult tick will have had three hosts (animals or humans it has fed on) by the end of its life cycle.

There are four distinct stages to an Australian Paralysis Tick’s life cycle, which generally takes about a year to complete.

They are:

1. Eggs
Adult female ticks lay a mind-boggling 3000 eggs at a time. The eggs are laid on the ground or in leaf litter. That statistic alone tells you what a significant threat they pose to your pets. The eggs take 40-60 days to hatch. Once the eggs hatch, they become larvae.

2. Larvae
Larvae have six legs. Larvae climb onto vegetation and look for their first host. This is often a native animal that is immune to the effects of tick toxin. These gluttonous nymphs will feed for four to six days. Once they have had their fill of blood, they fall to the ground, moult, and become nymphs.

3. Nymphs
Nymphs have eight legs, and as soon as they emerge, they look for the second host they can feed from. This feeding is often referred to as a blood meal. Nymphs are around in large numbers from March to August. Although they’re not fully fledged adult paralysis ticks, they can cause serious harm to your pets if a large number is found attached to them. Once they have finished feeding, nymphs fall to the ground, moult, and become adult ticks.

4. Adults
Female adult paralysis ticks have one mission: to find a host. Once they do, they will engorge themselves with blood – often 100 times more than their body weight. The female tick then abandons its host and lays its eggs to start the whole cycle over again. Adult male ticks do not feed from a host. A male tick uses the host to find a female tick to mate and feed from her. Males pierce the cuticle with their mouth parts and feed on the female’s haemolymph.

What animals do ticks harm?

Ticks attach themselves to various animals; however, not all animals react to ticks.

Native animals like possums and bandicoots are often found with many ticks on them, but they have built up immunity against the paralysis ticks’ toxins and are generally unharmed by them.

Ticks can also attach themselves to humans. Most people won’t get sick after a tick bite, but some people have severe allergic reactions to them, which can cause an anaphylactic reaction.

For dogs and cats, tick poisoning can cause serious illness or death. Very old and young dogs and cats will suffer more complications with tick poisoning. Pets with health conditions are likely to fare worse than healthy adult dogs and cats.

How do ticks harm cats and dogs?

When ticks feed on your pet’s blood, they inject a toxin into its bloodstream. This toxin is actually a type of venom. The toxin directly affects the nervous system, causing lower motor neuron paralysis.

This toxin is injected in various amounts throughout the feeding process. Holocyclo-toxin is a mysterious toxin, captivating the attention of Australian researchers. Its complex mechanisms continue to elude scientists.

You need to know that if your dog or cat is not treated, they will almost certainly suffer from respiratory and heart failure, leading to loss of life. This is the case even if you have removed the tick.

What symptoms should you look for in your cat and dog?

It is vital that you are aware of the symptoms of paralysis ticks in your dog or cat. We have dealt with thousands of tick poisoning cases in our practice, which shows it’s not a rare occurrence in the Northern Beaches and on the North Shore.

Be proactive.

Be on the lookout for symptoms.

If your dog or cat has tick poisoning, you can expect to see some or all of the following symptoms:


Early Signs

Later Signs

Worsening Signs

Weakness in the back legs. Frequent sitting. Difficulty walking upstairs or jumping.

Wobbly legs, difficulty walking

Collapse, unable to stand, walk or sit


Panting, progressing to loud breathing and grunting noises

Breathing becomes exaggerated and difficult


Inability to blink

Frequent gagging and grunting

Reduced Appetite

Difficulty swallowing

Protruding tongue

A change in bark or meow

Vomiting, retching, gagging, or drooling

Gums become blue or grey-tinged as breathing gets difficult


Once signs of tick poisoning are noticed, they progress extremely rapidly, and symptoms will worsen if your pet is hot (due to weather or exercise) or stressed.

Also, keep in mind that ticks can be present on your pet’s body before they show any symptoms. Clinical signs can take 3-5 days from attachment to appear. If you find a tick on your dog and remove it, your pet can still develop symptoms, and you should still seek urgent veterinary care.

How do you find a tick on your pet?

You don’t need any fancy tools. Nor do you need to follow any highly technical procedures. The most important thing is that you’re thorough.

The most reliable way to find a tick is to run your fingers through your pet’s coat with enough pressure to feel for any lumps or abnormalities.

Just under 80% of ticks are found around pets’ heads and necks, but they can occur anywhere, so make sure you go over their whole body carefully. Check inside their ears, in their beards, around their eyes, between their toes and around the anal area.

10% of patients will have two or more ticks, so it is essential to keep looking even if you find one.

You think your pet has a tick onboard. What should you do next?

Your first instinct will be to panic.

It’s understandable.

It’s a scary experience and can cause immense amounts of worry.

However, the most important thing you can do is stay calm.

Why is this so important?

Firstly, it will allow you to keep a clear head and follow the necessary steps.

Secondly, if your pet’s stress levels increase or they overheat, they will deteriorate more quickly.

So, take a deep breath and follow these steps:

  • Contact us immediately and arrange to bring your pet in. Do not wait until your usual vet is open. We are open after hours 365 days a year, including public holidays, so you can rest assured there is help at hand.
  • Remove any visible ticks with finger plucking, a hook or tweezers and look for more. Keep in mind where there is one tick, there’s a 10% chance there will be more.
  • Try to keep your pet relaxed, quiet and cool, but do not offer your pet food or water. The tick’s toxins mean your pet may be unable to swallow effectively. This means that any food or water may put them at risk of life-threatening complications.
  • Keep any ticks you have removed in a sealed container and give them to your vet on arrival.
  • Remember, if you find a tick and remove it and your pet is not showing any signs of tick poisoning, they may still require urgent veterinary treatment as the toxins can continue to affect them when the tick is removed.

How we diagnose tick paralysis and tick poisoning

If a tick is found on your pet, we will examine your dog or cat carefully to see what clinical signs they are displaying and how advanced those signs are.

We then use a specific system to classify how sick your pet is. We pay particular attention to the respiratory and neuromuscular symptoms to determine where they sit on the scale. This helps us to pinpoint their condition, determine treatment options, and closely monitor their condition, looking for signs of progress or deterioration. It also ensures that assessments are consistent and can be used to communicate when the animal is being cared for by multiple people.

Professor Rick Atwell developed the system, and it has four stages, as outlined in the following table.


Stage 1The animal displays weakness and lack of coordination but can still stand and walk. We often get your pet to walk up steps to determine their level of mobility.
Stage 2The animal can stand but cannot walk.
Stage 3The animal cannot stand but can maintain a sternal position.
Stage 4The animal cannot maintain a sternal position and will lie on its side.



AThe animal is breathing normally with no difficulty.
BThe animal is demonstrating mild breathing difficulty.
CThe animal has restrictive breathing and is gagging or retching.
DThe animal has difficult or laboured breathing, has bluish discolouration of their skin, gums, and mucous membranes.


Pets on the lower end of the scale have a good chance of making a full recovery, whereas we are less confident about recovery in animals between stages 3C and 4D. Rest assured, we will do our very best to bring about a positive outcome for your pet, no matter where they sit on the scale. Our aim is always to save the lives of critically ill animals, and we are highly experienced in tick poisoning.

The sooner we see your pet, the more effective the treatment is. We urge you to bring your animal in immediately if you have any reason at all to suspect they might have tick poisoning.

What treatments will you use to help my pet?

Initial Treatment

Body:    When you arrive, your pet will be taken into the triage or treatment area of the hospital to be monitored closely by our team of highly experienced vets and nurses while you wait to see the consulting veterinarian.

The stress of travelling in the car to the hospital can cause a deterioration of your pet’s condition and breathing. Sometimes, they will require oxygen therapy while they recover from the journey. If their respiratory distress is severe, they may need oxygen cannulas placed into their nasal passages or emergency intubation.

The anxiety associated with their condition can cause tick paralysis patients to deteriorate further, so one of the first medications we administer is a sedative.

Once the sedative has taken effect, an intravenous cannula is placed, and tick anti-serum (TAS) is administered very slowly while your pet is monitored closely for adverse reactions. The TAS does not reverse the presenting symptoms but prevents further toxin binding to the nerve receptors.

Ticks can be extremely difficult to find. 10% of tick paralysis patients will have two or more ticks. For this reason, it is part of our treatment plan to perform a full-body clip on all patients. Patients receive further sedation or a short general anaesthetic while the clip is performed to reduce stress. Studies have proven pets that are not clipped have a higher mortality rate. After the clip, a tick-prevention product is applied.

Ongoing Treatment

Ongoing treatment can vary or change depending on the severity or deterioration of symptoms. Treatment in hospital can include any of the following:

  • 24hr monitoring
  • Repeated tick searches
  • Nil by mouth (due to being unable to swallow)
  • Intravenous fluid therapy
  • Sedation (to help calm your pet and minimise the adverse effects of stress, such as respiratory obstruction and regurgitation.)
  • Anti-nausea medications
  • Anti-acid medications (to help prevent regurgitation)
  • Intravenous antibiotics (if secondary pneumonia has developed)
  • Blood tests to monitor hydration, electrolytes, and ability to ventilate
  • Eye lubrication (due to paralysis of the blink reflex)
  • Manual bladder expression (paralysed patients are frequently unable to urinate by themselves)
  • Lung ultrasound or X-rays
  • Admission into ICU
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Mechanical ventilation (life support)

How do I look after my pet while they are recovering from tick poisoning?

When we send your pet home, they will require treatment and continued monitoring.

When your pet is ready for discharge, we will provide clear instructions so you know exactly what to do.

Your pet should be kept calm and cool as much as possible. You must limit their exercise and keep them calm for up to six weeks after they come home.

You should give your pet small and frequent meals and drinks rather than one large meal or drink a day.

Remember, we’re on hand to answer any questions you might have when you take your pet home.

If you become concerned about your dog’s health at all, get in touch with the team at NEVS.

How do I prevent or minimise the risk of my pet getting ticks?

Prevention is essential if you don’t want your pet to suffer the debilitating effects of tick poisoning.

You can do some things to prevent or minimise the risk of your dog or cat being affected by a tick.

Firstly, if you live in Sydney, especially on the North Shore or Northern Beaches, where our emergency vet practice is located, you should inspect your pet every day, looking for ticks. This is particularly important in the Spring and early Summer months when adult ticks are abundant. Make sure you remove their collars when searching them, as ticks often sneak underneath collars where they can’t be detected.

Secondly, talk to your local vet about preventative treatments. There are medications, sprays and even collars that prevent ticks from attaching to your pet and poisoning them. Your vet can suggest the best kind of preventative treatment for your cat or dog based on its breed, size, lifestyle, age, and health status. However, even if you use preventative measures, we still recommend that you regularly search through your pet’s coat.

Especially talk to your vet if you intend to travel with your cat or dog to areas where vets are inaccessible. They can provide you with some tools that can be used to help your pet in case of a tick incident.

For more information on preventing and treating tick paralysis, talk to the experts at Northside Emergency Veterinary Services.

CALL NEVS: 02 9452 2933



PHONE 02 9452 2933